(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) It’s always interesting to see what actors with strong screen personas choose to take on when they direct a movie. Here we have Denzel Washington, of the old-school stoic tough-love tradition, picking the historical drama play Fences as his inspiration for his third outing as director. As we may guess, it’s a strong actor-driven project exploring themes of black experiences in urban America, facing prejudice and individual failings along the way. Washington himself gets to play a hard-headed patriarch—but certainly not a perfect one. Actors such as Viola Davis and Jovan Adepo have good roles here, with family conflict building up as a dramatic force throughout the film. While Fences is not particularly strong on sheer cinematic qualities, the acting is, as one expects, very good—with many of the players, including Washington and Davis, reprising award-winning performances from a 2010 theatrical revival. It’s not a spectacular nor overly memorable film, but it’s solid, thematically successful and a wonderful capture of a play, a time and place and a certain hard-fought working-class attitude. It certainly does much to bolster Washington’s credentials as a surprisingly effective voice for a certain segment of the African-American community, not only by what he chooses to play, but also what to bring to the screens.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) I rarely think that movies are worth seeing solely for acting talent, but Doubt is an obvious exception, even more so now than when it was released. Meryl Streep is a national treasure, of course, and Viola Davis has always been a solid performer, but now that Philip Seymour Hoffman is gone and that Amy Adams has become a megastar, Doubt looks dangerously top-heavy with an incredibly strong cast. As befits a play brought to the screen (director John Patrick Shanley adapting his own award-winning work), the performers are the key to a dialogue-heavy drama. Every four of the leads got Oscar nominations, even Davis for a mere two scenes. Dealing with troubling allegations of abuses and what happens when beliefs (in God, in goodness, in guilt) clash together, Doubt is a drama in the purest sense, uncluttered by physicality or artifices—it could be a radio play if it tried. Visually, the film blandly re-creates a 1960s Catholic school, but the point is elsewhere. It’s certainly not an action film, but you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a thriller when it reaches fever pitch and truly sparks with dramatic conflict. The last line is merciless in offering no comfort, moral support or resolution. This is not a film that ends as much as it lingers.
(On Cable TV, March 2013) There’s a small stroke of genius in the way The Help takes a big social issue such as culturally-ingrained racism and looks at it from a very domestic perspective. Isn’t it a very real human tragedy to think that poor black mothers spent more time raising privileged white children than their own kids, helping perpetuate the established order? Doesn’t it drive the point home more effectively than broad social demonstrations? Isn’t Bryce Dallas Howard simply repulsive as the evil-in-a-sundress homemaker who considers “the help” as nothing more than disposable property? The Help is noteworthy in that it’s a female-driven film that managed to break the box-office: a welcome change of pace from the usual bang-bang entertainment that drives summer blockbuster crowds. A large part of this success has to be attributed to the way the film genially approaches its subject: Nearly all of the lead cast is female, and makes no apologies in the way it presents itself as a southern dramatic comedy of manners. While the film may earn a few knocks for presenting racism from a white perspective (as in: “Here’s the white girl to help those poor black people tell their story of woe”), there’s no doubt that outspoken matrons Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis earn the spotlight away from southern belles Emma Stone and Jessica Chastain. While younger male viewers may not appreciate the kind of storytelling that The Help is built on, it’s easy to see that the film is effective at what it does, and that the emotional weight of the film goes beyond its older and wiser target audience. As a result, The Help manages some serious cross-over impact, charming even audiences outside its marketing category. It’s sweet without being too cloying, and it’s got a few memorable stories in its bag of folk tales. It’s surprisingly effective at discussing the emotional side of child-rearing, and wrings some real emotion from its premise. The soundtrack is occasionally terrific, and the sense of southern culture (tempered by the real recognition of its racist enablement) is spectacular. It’s well worth a look, even for viewers who may not feel as if they material calls to them.